Do you remember escaping the possible sting of a bee buzzing around your face? You must have observed the lift, pick, swim, dip, swirl and drop of a bee. Today, technologists and researchers from across leading universities and companies have created ornithopter robotic bees that are remotely controlled via interfaces and sensors. Even NASA stated in March 2018 that it would use a swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers, Marsbees, for enhanced Mars exploration. The organization has been granted a patent (US6840476B1) for a resonant wingbeat tuning circuit for ornithoptic micro aerial vehicles in 2005, as shown in the illustration below:
In this patent (US6840476B1), a resonant wingbeat tuning circuit utilizes a feedback control to produce maximum flapping amplitude for the robotic bee. It also tracks resonant frequency of the robotic wings as per change in flight condition, ambient pressure, or incurred wing damage, making more efficient flights in resonance with wings flapping function.
Bees have also inspired 23-year-old Colombian designer Adrian Perez Zapata, who designed a home-cleaning system idea using a swarm of robotic bees, as depicted in the below video.
Global filing trend in robotic bee technology
The United States of America, China, Japan, Germany, and France are the top countries nurturing research in technology relating to robotic bee technology.
Retail major Walmart has also filled six patents in crop management using unmanned vehicles, where one of them includes autonomous drones as robotic bees for agricultural operations. The tiny robotic bees aka drones are utilized for pollination, crop detection, defending crops from insects and much more. Patent application US20180065749A1 describes the use of robotic bees to carry a pollen applicator with a bristle to collect pollen from flowers. To provide vision to these bees, this patent application suggests the configuration of video cameras in a radar-type scanner to identify front surface areas. These robotic bees can also work in night vision where they can create an air-flow for sufficient pollen removal from the bee and detect presence of applied pollen.
DragonFly, launched by TechJet, including ultra-micro avionics providing maneuverability properties is not far behind in this race. It received $1 million funds from U.S. Air Force and has multiple uses such as, in military operations, inside-outside home security, recording movements and trekking user, spying operations, etc. It has five patents related to design and technology patterns, including mechanics, aerodynamics and flight controls. The product comes with an easy pocket carry addition for users to carry, modular design actuators-wings-electronics components, accelerometers-GPS and more than 20 environmental sensors for flight controls and stable photography.
Powering the miniscule robotic bee
Working on this tiny scale needs smaller scale equipment with efficient power sources. And power sources with micro dimensions are hard to develop in comparison to mechanical design fabrication.
As the size of a flying object reduces, the battery capacity vs flight time curve bends towards the battery capacity axis, describing that the battery capacity at lower scale is rapidly lowering flight time of mini-drones. Therefore, due to less output is received, power sources are less considered for research than design implications. Further, the weight to size comparison to other crafts and flying biological creatures is such an important factor to design robotic bees as shown in the illustration below:
Mechanical design construction is respectively easy to develop w.r.t. power supply requirements. This has been proven by a similar idea implemented by a Harvard College developer team’s design – RoboBee. A research team from Harvard University filed implementation of robotic bee’s mechanisms in a patent US9038942B2. The team has developed a working robotic bee weighing 0.08 grams, 31 times lighter than a penny. This bee beats its wings (rotates rotors) at 120 beats per second, and conducts all robotic actions, including floating, diving, launching and flying.
Harvard’s patent US9038942B2 discusses a main drivetrain frame including drive-actuators mounted and configured for reciprocating displacement. These actuators are connected to rigid links a proximate link and remote links. Another patent US9945397B2 from Harvard describes actuating soft robotic actuators for micro robotic flying vehicles.
Honey bees form a major part of the food chain, where one third of the world’s human consumed food depends on pollination driven by honey bees. This activity is performed by just 2% of the total world bee population. With the population of bees subsiding, implementing sensors and cameras on micro-bots provides multi-use features of robotic bees which helps in multiple ways beyond pollination, including monitoring crop health, identifying pests infesting crops, supporting spray operations, operating patrolling/surveillance/spy operations, facilitating aerial photography and extending support in disaster management conditions where general quadcopters can’t reach. To increases survival probability of the honeybee species from colony collapse disorder, these robotic bees will be a milestone for researchers and humankind for farming bees in greenhouses and making balance in eco-system.
(Featured image is intended for representational purpose alone and has been sourced from https://pixabay.com/en/bee-abstract-insect-nature-honey-2984342/)